Bunraku Puppet Theater

Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theater, is probably the most developed form of puppetry in the world. It is closer in style to Punch and Judy than Pinnochio as there are no strings and in its early days the puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain. The puppets are large - usually about one-half life size - and the main characters are operated by three puppeteers. Many bunraku plays are historical and deal with the common Japanese theme of giri and ninjo - the conflict between social obligations and human emotions. The greatest works by Japan's most famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) are bunraku plays, many of which are written around this kind of conflict.

A 'musume' or maiden puppet head

A 'musume' or maiden puppet being operated by the omozukai and his two assistants.

A 'bunshichi' or warrior puppet head

A 'bunshichi' or warrior puppet

Bunraku is actually the name commonly used for ningyo joruri - ningyo meaning puppet and joruri being a kind of chanted narration. Puppet plays are believed to have their origins in the 10th or 11th century. Itinerant entertainers, many from Awaji Island in the Seto Inland Sea, presented plays in the nearby cities of Osaka and Kyoto.

Bunraku as we know it today, combining puppetry, joruri and musical accompaniment provided by the three-stringed shamisen, began in the Edo Period (1600-1868) in Osaka. Like kabuki before it, in the 1600's bunraku became the common man's equivalent of the noh, which only the aristocracy were allowed to study. It flourished from the end of the 17th century, thanks particularly to the popular collaboration of the chanter Takemoto Gidayu I with Chikamatsu. Chikamatsu's Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1703, Sonezaki Shinju) is equivalent in stature and theme to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The play, based on an actual recent love-suicide, was so popular that it caused an increase in this kind of suicide - until the government made it illegal. The concept of basing a play on a recent event was revolutionary and really caught the imagination of the public. The most famous bunraku play is probably Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Kanadehon Chushingura), a story of heroics, loyalty and revenge, which has also been made into a famous kabuki play and filmed many times.

Bunraku puppet heads

The variety of puppet heads that are used for different characters.

The omozukai, or main puppeteer, manipulates the head and features and the right arm while the two lower ranked puppeteers operate the left arm (hidari-zukai) and the legs (ashi-zukai). The assistants will typically serve a 10-year long apprenticeship on each before becoming an omozukai. The omozukai is visible to the audience - he is the star of the show, after all - and often colorfully dressed while the other operators are 'invisible' - actually they're just cloaked in black robes and hoods. Puppets of female characters usually don't have legs as they are clad in full-length kimono.

Since the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Western culture became increasingly popular, bunraku has been in decline and relies on government sponsorship and revenue from the National Theater in Tokyo and the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. When the National Theater opened in 1966, it was the first permanent home bunraku had had in almost 150 years. Although there are occasional increases in popularity, the real problem lies in the fact that the craftsmen who create the puppets and costumes are dying out and the long apprenticeship necessary to take their place does not appeal to today's young generation.

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